Pistorius debate shows need for greater research

After Oscar Pistorius’ controversial defeat in the T43/44 200m, extensive research is required to determine how strict regulations on prosthetics should be

Image: Mister-E via flickr Creative Commons

Image: Mister-E via flickr Creative Commons

The Paralympic Games have proved yet again that, despite all appearances, disabled people are exactly the same as non-disabled people. No matter your condition, you can always exhibit your fitness, your determination, and your readiness to protest a shock defeat. Oscar Pistorius’ loss in the T43/44 200m final at the hands of Alan Oliveira came as a surprise to most, not least to the Blade Runner himself.

His post-race criticism of the Brazilian’s decision to extend his legs by four centimetres has provoked much controversy, asking once more at what point a prosthesis ceases to be an aid and starts to be an advantage. Stride length is only one factor that determines the winner. If it were vital, NBA dropouts would dominate the start line, and Oliveira would have his legs at their maximum allowed length. On the other hand, his truly unexpected win has combined with the fact that no-one knows for certain whether his blades actually helped him. So is this a much-needed call for a careful reassessment of sporting aids, or is it just the clamouring of an athlete seeing a younger, fitter opponent eclipse him?

My own thoroughly (un)scientific analysis of the effectiveness of blades suggests they do play an important role. The race in question had equal numbers of T44 and T43 competitors. These two classes comprise of single leg and double leg amputees respectively. All three medals went to T43 athletes, the ones which are conventionally deemed to be more disabled. This seems not down to a lack of excellent competitors; just the day before, Arnu Fourie set the T44 world record, yet his teammate Pistorius set an even better one for the T43 class. Had Fourie been competing against only single amputees, South Africa might have had its gold medal after all. It appears that his real handicap was the inability to optimise the length of his legs.

Despite this, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) are opposed to the use of prosthetics to create, amongst other things, an “unrealistic enhancement of stride length”. The issue is complicated by a lack of any definitive research comparing prosthetics to human limbs, preventing a ruling on what counts as an ‘enhancement’. As a result, their regulations are too broad, whilst their Olympic counterparts’ are too strict for fear of allowing an army of cyborgs to dominate the podiums. After extensive, independent research there would be no reason to continue this discrepancy. For now, Pistorius is unable to alter his current legs without risking his hard-earned eligibility to compete in the Olympics. Oliveira, on the other hand, seems content with only competing with fellow amputees, and can enjoy the flexibility allowed to him by the regulations.

This strikes me as fundamentally against the spirit of the Paralympics. Its very existence is a celebration of nature, not innovation. Supporting loose regulation of technology in the Paralympics is the same as supporting steroid use in the Olympics; both detract from the effort of the athlete. As it stands, disabled sportsmen in non-disabled events like Pistorius face an uphill struggle to prove themselves. His achievement as the first amputee runner in the Olympics marks a true milestone and is an important reminder to the public about the nature of ability. Without progress on the part of the Games’ organisers, however, this message will be lost, and disabled people will continue to be judged by their disability above all else.

2 comments

  1. Hear, hear! You’ve nailed the issues in this. Not only was Fourie ripped off, but Singleton as well. If Oliveira and Leeper had finished as they normally do without the longer blades, the winners would have been Pistorius, Fourie and Singleton. Both Fourie and Singleton were hampered by unextenable real, actual legs.

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  2. What should count as an enhancement? What’s the difference between taking steroids (which isn’t allowed), and taking caffeine, or sleeping at altitude or in an altitude machine (which are allowed)? All involve performance enhancement without effort.

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